I was not happy with myself this morning. This has been yet another month of broken resolutions, including the one where I get up early in the morning, get ready for work and clean something in my apartment, so when I leave it's fairly neat and hospitable, a good haven for when I come back again. For the last month, unless I have something scheduled early, it's been nearly impossible for me to get myself out of bed with enough time to do more than shower and throw clothes on.
This morning was especially bad because I was awake at 7, but not moving until after 8, just lying there and looking at the clock every few minutes. When I did get up and ready for work, I was really irritated with myself, convinced that the slow start would mark my day.
I went to Starbucks to pick up breakfast and coffee, and as I walked from the store back to my car, God redeemed my morning. One of my students and his dad were walking up the sidewalk, and stopped, with a big smile and a handshake, to say hi. We chatted, and I invited him to a hockey game that two of our guys are playing in on Saturday, and then I drove to work.
It's no excuse; I still want to wake up early and get a few useful things done before I go to work, but to me this meeting is a proof that I serve a gracious God who does indeed, thank you Pastor Jim, work with my worst when that's all I can give Him.
"The truth is that Adam and I are equally comfortable with a sewing machine as we are with a welder." --Jamie Hyneman, "Mythbusters"
"What is one of the easiest temptations to believe? That you're all alone, that you're 'the only one who has ever...' When you name and organize those assets [of everyone in a congregation], you come to see the beauty of Jesus' 'vine and branches' word picture (John 15) or Paul's description of church-as-human-body (1 Corinthinans 12 and Ephesians 4). When connected to Christ, your congregation taps into the Spirit of God, to Jesus' example. You bond and bridge with one another to create a whole that is always greater than the sum of its parts." --The Great Permission: An Asset-Based Field Guide for Congregations
One of the greatest investments any youth leader can make is to spend whatever time it takes to break down cliques and explode stereotypes within a group. For one thing, they are artificial, and one's place in a clique has very little to do with one's value to the Body of Christ. For another, they isolate people with questions from people with answers. It's actively dangerous to always only be among people who think the way you do, becuase in that situation you will rarely be challenged to approach a new idea within the framework of your beliefs. And third, they break up the community Jesus has commanded us to build. "The leaders of the Jews lord it over them, but it must not be so among you. The greatest among you must be your servant."
Cliques and stereotypes are not only a problem among youth groups, but live in all parts of a congregation.
Harness the power of chaos. Choose teams for small group games and discussions with a random drawing.
Find the influencers in your group and challenge them to greet people outside their own circles of friends for several weeks.
Bend the rules of games to favor those people who might be normally unlikely to shine, and give the group the chance to affirm them.
Model what you ask your youth group to do.
Don't make superstars. Spread responsibilities and praise all around.
One of the great things the Internet has done is to give youth a set of tools to freely and honestly express themselves, declaring their value in the world not based on what any other person thinks, but on the gifts they know in themselves.
At the same time, cyberspace creates only the illusion of community, and is just as harsh a place to exist as any bricks-and-mortar settings. My proof of this comes in the number of hurtful and derogatory comments posted in even the most neutral online forums.
What the church needs to do is constantly challenge its members to live outside the boundaries we find in the world. We need to teach how Christ broke rules to love unlovable people. We need to not allow stereotypes to limit the potential we see in our youth. We need to print in large type the obituary of Mr. Clique, as Jeanne Mayo suggests. In many groups this is a long process, but our ministries will be less effective every day we leave our students in their original boxes.
Waiting for a left turn the other morning, I looked up and say a banner hanging from a utility pole next to the churcn where I park. It read, "Celebrating 70 years of Practical Christianity!" Until I ran into a lot of traffic, I'd never read the sign before, but when I did notice it, I had to stop and think if that was a message I would want to send.
What's "practical" about following Jesus?
- Jesus warned his followers in Scripture that they would be hated, jailed, and even killed if they preached his words.
- In the early church, one thing Christians were known for providing hospitality and basic medical care to people with horrible contagious diseases.
- Jesus' advice for making a living in his service was "just walk into town and trust that someone will welcome you and provide for you."
- Many Christian martyrs in all centuries have left grieving, helpless families behind with no definite arrangements for their care.
- Often, the practices of Christians can be done by any competent civic group, without all the sacrifice called for in doing those things (hospitality, care for the poor, clean living) in Christ's name
This year, I resolve not to use the word "practical" with my students. Instead, I will remind them of how difficult, how all-consuming, how crazy and impractical this discipleship is, and dare them to take it up anyway.
It didn't matter what day I went into the store, or what time, or how many other customers were in the place, no one would try to sell me anything. The store employees walked by me a lot, while I was poking around through the displays looking for the right sections, but none stopped to ask if I had found what I was looking for, or encourage me to make a deal with them to take it home.
I couldn't figure this out. I was trying to make a large, fairly expensive purchase. But no one would sell me anything! My mother suggested that I simply look like I have no money. I thought about the way I was dressed in the store and what that might tell a salesperson. I had on nice khakis, dark leather shoes, a zippered henley-style shirt and a casual tan corduroy jacket. I must have at least looked like a customer. But I may not have looked like the ideal customer, and so the store lost one, because talking to someone who doesn't fit an image of the kind of person they want in their store is apparently a lot to ask.
In his book "Life With Father," Clarence Day told a story about his father trying to buy a refrigerator. In one store, he ordered one on the condition that it be filled with ice when it was delivered. The salesman replied, "But sir, we are not in the ice business."
Day's response was sharp. "Then it seems to me you're in no kind of business at all!" Simply making the sale wasn't enough; the store also had to satisfy the real need (ice) that went along with the purchase.
Jeanne Mayo, in her book "Thriving Youth Groups" talks about how one problem her youth group faced was a lack of friendliness toward new people. One student announced to his mother that he would never come back, and when asked why, explained that no one had greeted him or invited him to participate in any of the evening's events. He had come there for fellowship, and no matter how good the program was that he heard, his real need was not met.
Churches and youth groups need to be extremely careful about how we approach new people. We can't assume they will just find their way, because church is a complicated place with a lot of ritual that must be explained somehow. At the same time, we can't make every person who walks through the door a member of the leadership team on the first visit. Jon Schmidt, pastor of First Lutheran Church, told a preaching class that when he spots a new person in the pew on Sunday morning, that's when he feels the most pressure on his preaching; he wonders what brought that person there and if his sermon will meet those real needs.
We need to treat people as though they are going to make an expensive purchase. The church, after all, has the one item of greatest value, and one of those people who comes to our worship or our youth group will take it for the first time. We need to greet by name. We need to ask about families and jobs and school and prayers we might ask for them. We need to create places for these visitors to introduce themselves and share what they do best. And at all times, we need to share with them what the steps are to join the family.
I was standing in the Wydown narthex talking with one of my students a few weeks ago when she poked me and said "Do you know those people?" Sure enough, a new family with two teenage boys was just walking in. I had never seen them before. (Of course, having been there just two months, I had never seen a lot of regular members before either.) She didn't know them either, so we walked over and introduced ourselves. We said we were glad they had come to church that morning. I told them what I did in the building and invited them to look over our youth ministry calendar for events that might interest them. And when they walked into the sanctuary to prepare for worship, we said we hoped we would see them again. It's not hard work, at a furniture store or in a church, and to create the culture of friendship that is so vital a part of the church Jesus taught us to be, it must be done by every member.
Study: More Teens Exploring Faith on the Internet (Springfield, MO News-Leader)
Teens' Bold Blogs Alarm Area Schools (Washington Post)
Study Targets Teens' Addiction to the Internet (China View)
When Jesus was crucified, would his blood spilling on the ground have made the ground holy?
- Most posters seemed to believe that Jesus' blood would have had a sanctifying effect on the physical ground beneath the cross. The answer that caught my eye was that the blood sanctified the ground, and the small subterranean creatures in it, including a certain species of grasshopper that became... the praying mantis.
Why are there so many rules in all the different faiths, and why are they so similar?
- The most quoted and most debated answer to this question was that the rules are all major cultural taboos and not specific marks of "peoplehood" the way they are presented in the Hebrew Scriptures.
How does the Holy Trinity work?
- I'm very impressed with the length and detail of the answer, but it's fiendishly long to copy in one bullet like this. Read it here.
Since modern-day Judaism doesn't use animal sacrifices, how do todays Jewish people atone for their sins?
- The very knowledgeable poster who answered this question first pointed to the "day of atonement" mentioned in Scripture, Rosh Hashannah, from Leviticus 23:24-5.
How do you honor your parents when they are abusive or uncaring?
- Answers ranged from taking out frustration against them in violent ways ("honor them with a punch in the jaw") to Scripture reminders to love parents no matter what, to the very insightful "Children need to honor their parents, and at the same time parents need to be worthy of that trust and honor." (Which answer has its base in Scripture, Ephesians 6:1-4.)
A few months ago in Youthworker Journal, there was an article about doing ministry in online settings like this one. One of the points made was that the relative anonymity of the Internet allows teenagers to admit they have serious questions like these ones, when their church might not be as open to hearing their doubts and ideas.
One of the most interesting things in my stroll through MySpace was that the ages of the people posting in the forums ranged from teenagers to grandparents, all discussing the same questions. In a culture where generations are increasingly separated (from daycare to nursing homes, we tend to build cultures of peers rather than matching people with questions and people with answers) the idea that through this online community people of all ages can share opinions and honestly wrestle with the same ideas.
There has been a lot of controversy about MySpace and Facebook and similar sites, generally because so much personal information can get out into the public sphere and then be misused, but I think there are two things we can legitimately encourage in our students. First, we can teach critical thinking skills. Jesus calls us to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" and that means knowing how to identify what is good and evil and practicing that discernment in every situation, not simply avoiding. Second, we can teach wise sharing. Students need to know basic safety practices on the Internet, and need to have an especially well-developed sense of etiquette to be a positive witness in the anonymous world of cyberspace.
In the Youthworker Journal article, author Renee Altson points out that if we create and use online communities, we need to follow through offline as well, holding our students accountable for the things they say and do online and how it affects their testimony about Christ. She's right. MySpace and its copycats have a lot to offer as a forum for openly sharing faith and life, but we can't allow them to be substitutes for the real thing. Neither can we afford to drive our students to those places by closing our minds and our real-life gatherings to the honest questions and doubts they have.
"Why Do They Do That? Practical Advice to parents about how to tackle teen behavior" by Nick Pollard, (C) 1998 Lion Publishing, ISBN 0745940870
"500 Clean Jokes and Humorous Stories and how to tell them" by Rusty Wright and Linda Raney Wright, (C) 1985 Barbour Publishing, ISBN 1577482441
"CT At the Movies" weekly movie newsletter from Christianity Today
What I'm Watching:
"Romance Without Regrets" On EWTN
Joel Osteen's broadcast from Lakewood Church
"Whose Line is it Anyway" on ABCFamily
What I'm Hearing:
Gaelic Storm "Herding Cats" album
alt.NPR YouthCast podcast from PRX
CSMSG Retreat CD:
Backstreet Boys "Incomplete"
Blink182 "All the Small Things"
Carbon Leaf "Life Less Ordinary"
Where my Coffee comes from:
Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Company-- Clayton, MO
Ugly Mug Coffee
Dr. Diana Jacks is a psychologist and artist. Faced with a divorce later in life, she channeled her confusion and anger-energy into painting a set of portraits, at first for her own expression, to show how she felt in each stage and paint that feeling into the open where she could identify it and confront it. When the nine paintings drew a great deal of attention in a solo show, and friends (and strangers) began telling Dr. Jacks that the portraits clearly showed the emotions they felt in their own times of grief, the artist wrote out a short guide for using the paintings in counseling situations. That guide has recently been expanded into the book "Here to There: Grief to Peace" being published by Quality of Life Publishing.
Many traditional counseling methods rely on words, both the helping words of the counselor and the self-story of the counselee, to explore and work to solve emotional problems. With increasingly limited vocabularies of emotions, these methods are often difficult to use with students. Who knows how many words a picture is worth to a student who identifies with the emotion it shows?
The set of paintings in Dr. Jacks' book are printed in cards, pre-punched to be removed from the back pages. One of her points about using them is that the process of grieving does not move from 1-9 in a straight line, but frequently loops around. The cards, used by a student, can be rearranged visit-by-visit to show where he or she is that day, and the images of the person in the pictures powerfully draw out comparisons to what is going on in one's own life.
Artwork in counseling is not a new idea. The power of these portraits is that they were created by a person deep in grief, not constructed after study. They are authentic and in-the-moment.
Hearing the author speak about her book, I heard her genuine love for art, and for words-- the chapters of the guide are peppered with quotes on grief and healing. Combined, artwork and helping words can be the key to the door a student would never open otherwise. As a tool, the book is informal and full of the author's own story-- two clues I look for in evaluating whether or not I would use material with students. As a show of good faith on the part of a youth minister, it tells the student who is offered the cards that I am willing to see the way he or she sees, not only demanding that my student speak my language.
The book is "Here to There: Grief to Peace" by Diana Jacks, PhD. Published by Quality of Life Publishing, it is available on Amazon.com.
All that said, it's very natural that I would feel drawn to Disney's new original movie "High School Musical." While full of cliches and stereotyped characters, the movie speaks a series of overwhelming true messages.
"It's a movie about breaking free from what you normally do," said Lucas Grabeel, in an interview with the cast. And unless one is already perfect, and therefore has no need to break away from anything, what more Christian message can there be?
High school, for most of the students in it, is a time for developing talents and learning how to cope with gradually more adult situations. It is also a time when adolescents, in searching for a unique identity, often pick one talent and work on it exclusively, avoiding standing out by trying new things and, on not instantly succeeding, feeling marked with that failure.
East High in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the setting of "High School Musical" has a student body divided into distinct chunks-- the basketball team, the drama club, the science decathlon team, and everyone else. The lines between groups are difficult to cross, and no one really tries to, until the basketball team captain, Troy, meets the new student, a brilliant science student named Gabriella, on New Year's Eve and sings a karaoke duet with her. When tryouts for the winter musical are announced back at school, the two end up auditioning for the lead roles.
When the rest of the students find out that Troy, the basketball star, can sing, other students start to confess their secret dreams to their friends as well. Another hoopster likes to bake. A heavyset girl loves hip-hop dance. Another guy plays the cello-- unfortunately I don't remember why this is out of character.
Enter the dark side of the theater; a brother and sister pair who have starred in 17 of the school's productions are aren't intending to be less than the lead in the current one. This exploring new things just won't do, they decide.
The basketball and science teams aren't sure they like it either, and they set up Troy and Gabriella to drop out of the play. But no matter how hard anyone tries, the show (I'm sorry, but I have to say it) must go on. And it must go in with the basketball team captain and the science star in it. I won't give away any more than the beginning, middle and ending of this movie!
As required, a mild romantic subplot develops; the drama coach is an unaffirmed prima donna with a passionate hatred for cell phones; the principal is vaguely incompetent and favors the sports side over the arts side of his school, though he protests neutrality; and Troy's father is the overly driven basketball coach who doesn't understand that his son might be both an athlete and an artist, and still exist in this reality.
Still, the movie tells a redeeming story. In real life, athletes do have talented voices. I have personally met a very intelligent cute kid (in the mirror every morning.) And while I rail against parents who pressure their kids in directions that are important mostly to the parents, I have also seen them come around in the end to see why the new adventure was so important to try, as Troy's father did. Sometimes, our students don't see these real-life stories because the environment they grow up in isn't friendly to finding new gifts, so they end up hidden. At the same time, sometimes all it takes is an open, entertaining glimpse that those gifts are out there, and our real students will see it and start to talk.
Here's a story to tell all our students. Yes, it's full of corny music. No, it will not connect with every student. But there are bits of truth, bits of Gospel, bits of the promise of life all through "High School Musical" and it is worth looking at.
When I found out I had a budget that worked, my first stop was the bookstore, where I ordered several "Gospel According To" books: "The Gospel According to Harry Potter, "The Gospel According to the Simpsons" and "The Gospel According to Disney." If I am going to be an effective youth minister, I said to myself, I will understand how to sneak the Word into youth culture. Like a computer virus programmer, I must know all the backdoors and weak spots to use.
This week, I am polishing the message for our middle school retreat, and racking my brain and bookshelf for stories, anecdotes, jokes, quotations that will push aside the disinterest and lack of knowlege we fight in our youth and open their minds to the story that's behind the light words I begin with.
As I sit at my desk and my headache grows, the picture of a long-haired, dark-dressed young man falls into my memory, from the high school retreat two weekends ago. In our program time, I gave the students about twenty minutes to wrestle with Scripture one-on-one, just each student and the Bible. I gave them three basic questions to think on, and then we came together to share what we'd learned and wondered. "I read this story," the young man said, "and then I read the next one. It really made me want to go on and find out what else happened."
Without any brand names, without any special instructions, the Scripture had reached out and grabbed one of my students by the face. All by itself, the words of the Bible made him want to read more. I was amazed and humbled. Amazed because most of my preparation for youth events boils down to adding cushions to the Word so my students can ease into it, and humbled because if I remember to let it run, Scripture will always have that effect on someone, in some way.
For our next retreat, we will use the same activity. I don't expect to see the results in the same way, but I will not try to take so much control of the Scripture that I take away from the power of the raw Word.
As a help to anyone who wants to try this activity, the questions I used are borrowed from Rev. Kelly Fryer's "No Experience Necessary" Bible study, and they are:
1) What is God doing in this story?
2) What does this story say to you personally?
3) What does this story say to us as a small group, congregation, community or nation?
Epictetus, ed. Sharon Lebell "The Art of Living" (C) 1995 ISBN 0062513222
Robert Brustein, "Letters to a Young Actor" (C) 2005 ISBN 0465008062
Lawrence Block, "The Burglar in the Rye" (C) 1999 ISBN 0525945008
What I'm Watching:
"The Suite Life of Zach and Cody"
The AKC/Eukanuba National Championship Dog Show
What I'm Hearing:
Classic 99.1 in St. Louis
Hilary Duff, "Most Wanted" album
"My Fair Lady" original cast recording
I noticed this the other night while I was watching "Futurama." The episode was a shade of the movie "Animal House," and about halfway through I realized that both stories were telling the story of the book of Esther, a personal favorite of mine.
In the movie, made long enough ago that ROTC was a term every college student would know, a group of ne'er-do-well college students in the Delta fraternity is stalked by a sadistic college dean bent on making them follow increasingly difficult rules. The ultimate plan from the dean's office is to run the fraternity off campus altogether. Their ways of doing things are not what the dean wants them to be. When most of the Delta members are ready to give up, take their final semester's failing grades and leave quietly, one member speaks up and demands that the group stand up for themselves.
Esther was one woman who stood up against a vicious plan to eliminate her people because they were not the kind of people the king's advisor Haman wanted in the kingdom.
This evening, watching "Stargate: Atlantis" I noticed a lot of parallels between the storyline of the episode and the legend of St. George and the dragon, a well-known allegory of the struggle between good and evil. Col. John Shepard, the main character, is caught inside a shielded community of people who are waiting to "ascend"-- to transform from human creatures into higher beings made of pure energy. The one thing that keeps them from taking this step is a mostly invisible beast, who terrorizes the people, who refuse to fight it. Shepard fights the beast twice, is shrugged off, and healed by the people in the town. He is a classic redemptive figure, and challenges the townspeople to face the beast.
These are only two of the examples of why we must not simply teach our students to avoid culture, but teach them to look at it critically, seeking out the doors that God walks through in it. All people, Christian or not, struggle with the same largest questions, and the ways they express these questions end up with connections that aren't always intended.
St. Augustine of Hippo said that because Christians know the ultimate Truth, in the form of Jesus and his promise for us, we can automatically use everything in the world better than the rest of the world can, because we can apply that Truth to everything else in it. I firmly believe it. Where else does the dragon live in the culture around us? And who might the unlikely Saint Georges be who rise to fight it, shading Christ in the way he sings, or writes, or acts?
When the show was over, I stepped into the kitchen (a matter of inches in my current apartment) to finish making dinner and realized that the editing of the show made me feel a lot like Jesus did when he began preaching and started to see the state of his people's faith.
"You're missing the best part!" he must have shouted in his mind and out loud any number of times. "This show isn't about making more rules. It's not about acting like you have it all together. It's not about you deciding who's worthy and who still has a way to go."
"You're missing it! You're missing the part where God comes down and says 'I love you because I made you and I'm coming back to take away your sin and make you whole again the way you're supposed to be!'"
"Will you leave some work for God to do?"
"Chasing Shakespeares" by Sarah Smith, ISBN 0743464834
"Monstrous Regiment" by Terry Pratchett ISBN 0060013168
"Thriving Youth Groups" by Jeanne Mayo ISBN 076442680X
"Reverend Fun" cartoon
What I'm Watching:
"CSI" on CBS
What I'm Hearing:
"Sky High: Music from the Movie"
"The Chronicles of Narnia: Music Inspired by the Movie"
Where I'm Eating:
Jimmy's on the Park, Clayton MO
This is a "Christingle," an orange decorated with a candle, red ribbon, and various kinds of dried fruit. Originally a Moravian tradition, the Christingle tradition began around 1467. Each part has a different meaning; the orange stands for God's world; the candle for Jesus Christ, the light of the world; the red ribbon for Christ's blood, shed to save the world; and the fruit for God's creation, including ourselves. The word "Christingle" means "Christ-light."
The Scripture used for a Christingle service is that of Herod ordering the death of all the boy babies under two years old, after the Wise Men failed to come back to Herod with Jesus' location.
A highlight of the Christingle night is a procession by the children of the parish around the darkened sanctuary with their Christingle candles lit. The thin train of light moves gently around the open space, bringing light to the far corners of the room, and at the same time mutely asking the adults in the room how they are shining for Christ in the New Year.
The choirmaster here at CSMSG frequently walks, during a service, from one end of the sanctuary to the other. He uses the outside aisles, which are separated from the rest of the nave by a series of arched pillars, and something wonderful happens when he walks past each pillar. A light sets in the ceiling above each pillar, and the light shining down from it strikes his white chasuble, and when it does the whole arch and the wall near it and the faces of those people sitting in that arch suddenly glow much brighter. He is not producing the light himself, only reflecting it, but when he reflects the light is suddenly that much stronger.
In the New Year, let us take the mental step of remembering that we do not produce light in the world, but light from the Source reflects off of us and shines around us. Without arrogance, without legalism, without judgment, we can be the Christingle, the symbol, and carry the light that God has given us into God's world as we do God's work with our lives.
God bless you to shine.
I do actually enjoy hockey. Several of our students play and I go to their games when I have the chance and the schedule. One of the early events I went along on was a Blues vs. Red Wings game, with around 30 of our members. Just like Upper Michigan, hockey is a part of life here in St. Louis.
One of the advantages of watching hockey on television is that the camera always follows the puck. At a game, it can be hard to tell where the action is because my eye is trying to follow everything at once, and I often miss plays because my attention hasn't caught up with the puck yet.
The camera knows what's important. At least, the camera operator does. With that in mind, I offer this simple activity.
Take students to a hockey game. Invite them to your house to watch one on TV. After the game, point out how the camera follows the puck and how that makes it easier for you, the fan, to see what's important at the game.
Now ask students to imagine that a camera was following their lives. What would it follow? What would it see them do? According to the camera, what would the most important thing in their lives be? Let this lead into a discussion about focus. Especially in the New Year weeks, when people are making resolutions, you can use hockey as a tool to show how important it is to follow Christ above all in our decisions, habits and actions this year.